When the beacon of justice goes out, what will we use to light our way? 

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfearForeword:

I originally wrote the story below in the innocent days of August 2016. Its hard to believe how much hope I had then, and what a contrast I feel now.

For those friends who caution restraint, even in linguistics, who believe that an erosion of civil rights has not yet begun, I ask that you attempt empathy for me, even if you can’t for those currently in the same limbo at airports around the country.

Each one of the detained has a life, a social network, goals, and loved ones waiting for them at home. The vast majority are students and doctors, parents and neighbors, co-workers and friends. We already have a rigorous vetting process for all applications to this country that is proven to be as effective as possible. This type of thing has never happened before, despite claims to the contrary. This policy does not increase security, but threatens our partnerships in conflict regions and is a death sentence to families that risked their lives to support our interests.

I am a deeply privileged white woman with resources of many kinds to help me through my own experience. Please recognize that without all the help I had, my refused entry would have been emotionally crushing and life-altering. Delay of even one more day in my case would have meant an entire year lost because I would have been too far behind to catch up.

I do believe that in times of peace and stability it is helpful to adapt your attitude to hand out happy, but this is not that time. This time our integrity is under threat. This is not a bureaucratic error. Foundational elements of our political system are under threat and ‘not minding’ is not an option.

If you feel this story in any way might help someone understand the human cost of a refused entry, please share. We are all human, we all feel joy and pain and loss. We have come too far to return to tribalism and hatred and outright violence.

The most white supremacist thought to which I have ever been immediately attuned was in the stress of the situation described below. I was in the deportation lounge thinking ‘Can’t they see I’m not a terrorist?’ My second though was ‘wow, that was pretty racist. What does a terrorist look like? Why can’t she look like you?’ I didn’t know until I had that thought how shocking it is to realize you were racist all along. The shame of that self-reflection is not easy to bear and is terrifying to share publicly. Both feelings inform how important it is to share this story. It is critical that we are all a little more reflective, a little more honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens.

Any shame I feel is outweighed by the hope that in sharing I might help one person to see a little more clearly. Hopefully some of this speaks to you.

 

The secret to a charmed life is making all the green lights… and not minding the red ones

This popped into my head on a sunny September afternoon while waiting in traffic at an intersection I used to breeze through in SE Portland.

I was considering my helplessness, stuck in Portland while the rest of my graduate classmates were moving in, finding books, meeting each other and beginning class. That was all continuing on the other side of the world while I was waiting for a light, and waiting for my whole life at the same time.

I was supposed to be in London, and I was here, waiting for the British civil service to decide if I was going to be allowed back, if I could live and study in the UK, a place I was pretty sure was integral to my whole future. Looking back, I suppose there was an issue I was a security risk. I thought I was a normal 20 something, just wanting to go back to school. I didn’t think that my constant international travel looked suspicious, although I should have known better after all that time traveling to weird destinations. Student tickets aren’t usually the means of constant global circumnavigation

It started like all my other trips. I packed, printed documents, double checked lists and said my goodbyes. From the moment I stepped on the plane I was on my way to a new chapter of life, expectant, nervous, a little jittery with my soundtrack plugged firmly in my ears.

I hit the immigration hall out of the gate. I was excited to be there and I knew this drill. A lifetime of international travel and I thought I knew it all. Little did I know I had only ever seen one side of that system.

I strode confidently up to the podium, my passport and a print-out of my invitation letter proudly displayed. I tried to keep the conversation short and polite, my goal was to get out of the airport and on the train asap. I guessed I could be in my room in 2 hours, max. My head was already at Paddington station, looking for a taxi.

I was drawn back to the podium by a question “Where is your visa?”

I was confused. They were supposed to stamp that. That is how most visas worked for American passport holders (outside China, at least.) My two previous student visas had been granted that way.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Isn’t that what we’re doing? Did I forget to give you my letter?”

(Always be polite when traveling, it costs nothing and is much more effective)

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back”

I was left standing alone at the podium while others streamed by me. I had never had this perspective before, I was always the streaming, moving quickly through barriers with a smile and a quick polite word. It was disorienting, to suddenly know something is different and off, but not understand what exactly is happening. I was told to take a seat and wait. My original timeline was now very off and I was very much present in only this moment.

Flights land at Heathrow from all over the world, passengers enter the UK from 3 international terminals. That year 68 million passengers passed through their doors.

After I had been sitting for 20 minutes, a flight landed from Lagos. About half of the African passengers were detained for health screenings. I considered how lucky I was. Mine was probably a simple misunderstanding, his was being born in the wrong place. I was scared but grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths and choose happy.

I was not allowed in that day. I was refused entry, detained and treated suspiciously by a group I had previously barely noticed. I was fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. I was in a windowless room with a payphone useless to me. It was early Sunday morning GMT, who would be available? Could anyone help? I sat with the other Americans who had made my same mistake. For some it had been a gamble, for some a genuine misunderstanding. There was a quorum of about 5-6 students, constantly shifting, but always about the same size. There was a woman who had been at a conference and couldn’t give up her passport long enough to get the visa. She was kind in telling me to give up hope immediately, but I was still naïve enough to be unable to comply.

There was a VERY highly strung gentleman from New York who kept us informed of the events he was currently missing at his college on an hourly basis, in between lamenting how miserable this situation was. Now was the coach to meet him, now was the welcome drinks, now was the meeting with his advisor. Maybe he could just buy a cheap ticket to Denmark or Amsterdam, and stay a few days. It is the only time in my life I have ever genuinely thought ‘you are killing my zen, man’

I was trying not to panic and so had not begun to focus on how this knot would be unraveled. I kept thinking that when they understood how the mistake happened, and that I was unaware of a rule change, there would be some accommodation.  There was a singular unwillingness to do anything other than process us and send us home to deal with their colleagues in another branch of UKBA.

We went down to the arrivals hall to collect my bags, including the extra I had brought and paid for. I was quickly learning what it was to be accompanied everywhere, treated as a suspect.

My luggage was searched thoroughly in the otherwise empty entry hall as other passengers sailed through ‘nothing to declare’ and searchd again in front of the entire flight I was put on to get me home as quickly as possible. I had a short chance to call my parents to tell them to expect me. I was escorted with 3 guards, all at least a head taller than I was, the most unlikely international menace you had ever seen. They walked either side and behind me, to the van with the cage in the back and from the cage to the secure departure area where they checked my bags again. My rational mind knew it was a shaming mechanism: how could I have any contraband when the bags had been in their possession since they last searched them? The rest of me was mostly numb. The female guard, taking pity, gave me the chance to pull 2 things from my checked bags- a clean shirt and a stuffed dog who was my most constant companion.

And there I was. In seat 47G, on my way to another 30 hour journey back home to figure out what came next. I flew to Dallas, was met and given a hotel room, woke in darkness to the ringing of the wake-up call and stumbled onto a plane to O’Hare, more grief from TSA, probably because I was a mess and easy. Finally, I arrived back where I started, 72 hours later. My parents had hugs and plans and we had a mad rush for the first 3 days while I got a new passport (a whole other story) and sent all the paperwork to the consulate. Apparently, they aren’t kidding when they say ‘check all immigration requirements’ because those suckers change! As an undergrad I needed a letter, as a postgrad (and post 9/11 and 7/7) one needed a bank account, and a letter, and a whole form, and additional photos. We sent everything they asked and called everyone we knew who might be able to help. And then we waited.

The thing that people misunderstand about government, is that there are lots of parts and they function very differently. The civil service is a job for life. It’s a slow but steady rise, as long as you do your job, don’t make trouble, and are good at the tasks assigned you, its possible to have a wonderful life, and contribute to society. People in the civil service are the balance to politics. They keep the trains running, and the security at borders well, but they are also impervious to changing or breaking the rules. They are annoyed by people trying to circumvent a system and they are careful and thorough. All of which meant I was totally helpless, waiting at that light. Hoping a stranger would read my application, including the statement of why I made the mistake I did and got sent back. There was nothing I could do, no levers to pull.

The only option was to wait at that light, and wait for that civil servant and trust that I would be on time where I was going, and that things would work out ok. The only thing I could do was try to not mind the waiting. To decide that there was a reason that things happen and I’m not always in control.

Sometimes we hit all the green lights, and some days there are more red ones. The way to ensure we have a charmed life either way is to make sure to hit all the greens, or just to choose… not to mind the red ones.

 

Afterward:

I was able to have hope because I trusted the system, and I have faith in something higher. I still believe there is an order to the universe, but our system is in trouble. It is imperative that we fight on, using whatever tools we can, until we see green lights for everyone again.

 

 

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Emotional labor for my Trump-Voting loved ones

It was my mother, as it is almost always the mother, who kissed my hurts, and taught me slowly the secrets she learned:

That feminism is asking for equality.
That equality doesn’t mean displacement.
That if we communicate clearly there is often more than one way to share an orange.
That I am enough as I am, and Louis IV invented rules of etiquette to keep his court busy.
That hearing my own voice, deep from my own soul, will always point the right direction. Continue reading

Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’

I think so, do you?

I have lots of little things that I think about but that never really seem worthy of an actual post (although I keep being told that my posts are very long so it might be good to make them a little shorter). I decided, as I’d like to update more regularly that I will include more of the little random thoughts I have that are often unrelated but maybe offer something to think about:

SI Exif

Tradition:

I was wondering about the appeal of male a cappella groups. Why do they seem so ubiquitous at those privileged institutions of higher education and yet largely absent so many other places? I think its about tradition, they have had them since the days the colleges themselves were all male and the fact that it is institutionalized now adds value to what is otherwise pleasant, but slightly out of step with current social mores. So why value tradition? I think its because it’s a demonstration that you have been allowed to carry on your particular social customs for long enough for it to become tradition. As evidenced by Scotland and Ireland, at the point they were subjugated all their traditions and cultures were stamped out as much as possible by their invaders. The same is true for so many other conquered peoples for so long. Tradition is the indication that you have not been conquered and therefore been allowed to continue with whatever particular practice you may have had. Tradition is a mark of ongoing power and privilege. Crazy, huh?